The audacity of heresy

I have preached from this bully pulpit for years that the best response to free speech you hate is more free speech -- back and forth, to and fro until truth emerges victorious on the honorable field of bloodless verbal battle.

But that seldom seems to be the way it works out.

Nay, the knives come out and demands for revenge escalate, from cries for apology or demotion or firing to threats of boycott to beheading to casting into the auto-de-fé for having the audacity to speak heresy of the Gospel According to Barack.

Such behavior was on full-throated display after Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois picked Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware to be his running mate in his bid for the presidency, and The Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier penned an "analysis" piece for the wire service saying, "The candidate of change went with the status quo."

At the end, the article mentioned a 2007 ABC interview in which Biden said Obama was not ready to serve as president. The last line stated, "It seems Obama is worried that some voters are starting to agree."

Fournier's penchant for adding an ample dose of how and why to the standard who, what and when prompted much hand-wringing and navel-gazing when he was appointed to head the bureau in May. Fournier calls it accountability journalism.

"Write with authority," he wrote in a memo to AP staffers a year before his promotion. "The AP's hard-earned reputation for fairness and nonpartisanship must not be used as an excuse for fuzzy language when a clear voice is demanded, nor should it force us to give both sides of a story equal play when one side is plainly wrong."

The problem many journalists have with that is: Whose role is it to decide which side is plainly wrong? (That's why I'm not a big fan of "analysis" pieces among the news columns, though they can have a role if written with even-handedness and clearly labeled as such.)

But 18 people in the Review-Journal's circulation area -- I hesitate to call them all readers -- had no such compunctions and e-mailed the paper in high dudgeon, voicing various demands as to what to do about Mr. Fournier and The AP.

They called him biased, a propagandizer and a beta weasel. They compared him to Fox News, said he was in contact with Karl Rove, and said he consistently smears Democrats and favors the GOP's Sen. John McCain.

One lady wrote: "Fournier needs to go. NOW. ... I'm tired of having my constitutional rights trampled on. It's MY constitution and MY country and I want it back. Fournier does absolutely NOTHING to further those goals in any way, shape or form. I hope he's investigated for propagandizing the media too."

There was one minor problem with this wailing to the Review-Journal. We never published the piece in question. It appears all or most of the missives were generated from a Web site that listed talking points and encouraged viewers to type their ZIP codes into a box that then linked to e-mail addresses of newspapers in their area.

I replied to all asking whether they'd actually read the Fournier article, but only a handful said they had, possibly after I'd asked. Few grasped the apparently slippery concept that differentiates straight news from analysis.

Next, there's the case of the television commercial produced by an independent organization that spells out the longtime ties Obama has to unrepentant domestic terrorist William Ayers.

Shortly after it aired, the Obama campaign answered with a rebuttal denying any ties to Ayers, trying to blame McCain for the ad and protesting that it brings up crimes committed by Ayers -- a dozen bombings in early 1970s that included a New York City police headquarters, the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon -- when Obama was 8 years old. If left at that, all well and good.

But no, the earth must be scorched. An Obama lawyer wrote to the TV stations airing the ads threatening them and suggesting their broadcast licenses could be in jeopardy for "accepting for compensation material of such malicious falsity."

Obama supporters deluged the stations with 93,000 e-mails, many threatening boycotts of the stations and their advertisers.

An Obama campaign lawyer wrote the Justice Department demanding an investigation of "a knowing and willful attempt to evade the strictures of federal election law." Might that be the McCain-Feingold election law?

If that weren't enough, a company that filmed a documentary on Ayers' Weather Underground is claiming copyright violations, saying the ad steals footage.

They have flung their sheaths away and their blades thirst for blood.


Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about free speech and the role of the press. He may be contacted by 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@